Whirling Disease

Two fish with dark, bent tails in shallow water
These rainbow trout show the characteristic black tail and skeletal deformities indicative of whirling disease.

©Stephen Atkinson/Oregon State University

 

Whirling disease is caused by a microscopic parasite from Europe (Myxobolus cerebralis) that can infect some trout and salmon; it does not infect humans. It has been detected in 25 states. During the parasite’s life cycle, it takes on two different forms as spores and requires two hosts: a common aquatic worm (Tubifex tubifex) and a susceptible fish. Cutthroat trout are susceptible, especially during the first months of life. The parasite feeds on the fish’s cartilage, and the infection can cause skeletal deformities, a blackened tail, and whirling swimming behavior. Because the fish cannot feed normally and are more vulnerable to predation, whirling disease can be fatal. No practical treatment exists for fish infected with this disease or for the waters containing infected fish.

Presence in Yellowstone

Whirling disease was first detected in Yellowstone in 1998 in cutthroat trout from Yellowstone Lake. It has since been found in the Firehole River and throughout the Yellowstone Lake watershed. In the lake, the infection has spread to about 20% of the cutthroat trout. The parasite is most prevalent in the two known infected tributaries, Pelican Creek and the Yellowstone River downstream of the lake outlet. Infection has been most severe in Pelican Creek, which once supported nearly 30,000 upstream-migrating cutthroat trout. Significant declines in Pelican Creek’s spawning population have been attributed to the combination of whirling disease and predation by nonnative lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. The finding of adult fish in the lake with the parasite’s spores that survived their initial infection suggests some resilience of Yellowstone cutthroat trout to whirling disease.

Studying the Disease

Yellowstone National Park’s cutthroat trout spawning streams, which vary widely in thermal, hydrological, and geological characteristics, provide an exceptional opportunity to study whirling disease in native trout. Park staff have been working with Montana State University’s Department of Ecology to measure how the infection rate might vary in different stream conditions. Certain fish-eating birds have also been shown to disperse the parasite. Research has shown that the parasite can pass through the gastrointestinal tract of some birds, such as great blue herons, and remain alive.

Results of a 2012 survey suggest that whirling disease risk remains very high in Pelican Creek. Overall however, it does not appear that whirling disease has spread widely throughout spawning tributaries to Yellowstone Lake. In addition, prevalence of infection in juveniles and adults within the lake remains low. Despite this, there are still many unknowns concerning the parasite, particularly in the unique environmental context of Yellowstone.

Park staff emphasize prevention by educating people participating in water-related activities—including anglers, boaters, or swimmers—to take steps to help prevent the spread of the disease. This includes thoroughly cleaning mud and aquatic vegetation from all equipment and inspecting footwear before moving to another drainage. Anglers should not transport fish between drainages and should clean fish in the body of water where they were caught.

 
 
An underwater view of a spotted fish with a red slash on its neck and side swims above pebbles

Fish and Aquatic Species

Native fish underpin natural food webs and have great local economic significance.

Young cutthroat trout in a shallow creek

Fisheries & Aquatic Sciences Program

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Spawning lake trout

Lake Trout

Lake trout prey on Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Rainbow trout in the hands of an angler

Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout are native to North America in waters which drain to the Pacific Ocean from northern Mexico to Alaska.

Brook trout swimming

Brook Trout

Eastern brook trout was the first nonnative species introduced in Yellowstone—stocked in the (then fishless) Firehole River in 1889.

Head and body of a brown trout laying on the ground

Brown Trout

The brown trout is the only nonnative fish species in Yellowstone that is not native to North America.

Lake chub held in hand

Lake Chub

Native to the Missouri and Yellowstone river drainages in Montana and Wyoming, the lake chub is not native to Yellowstone National Park.

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New Zealand Mud Snails

New Zealand mudsnails are invasive and have a significant detrimental effect on Yellowstone.

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Red-rimmed melania, a small snail, was discovered in a warm swimming area.

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Resources

Bartholomew, J.L. and P.W. Reno. 2002. The history and dissemination of whirling disease. In J.L. Bartholomew and J. C. Wilson, ed., Whirling disease: Reviews and current topics. Vol. Symposium 29. Bethesda, MD: American Fisheries Society.

Kerans, B.L. and A.V. Zale. 2002. The ecology of Myxobolus cerebralis. In J.L. Bartholomew and J.C. Wilson, ed., Whirling disease: Reviews and current topics, 145–166. Vol. Symposium 29. Bethesda, MD: American Fisheries Society.

Koel, T.M., D.L. Mahony, K.L. Kinnan, C. Rasmussen, C.J. Hudson, S. Murcia, and B.L. Kerans. 2007. Whirling disease and native cutthroat trout of the Yellowstone Lake ecosystem. Yellowstone Science 15(2).

MacConnell, E. et al. 1997. Susceptibility of grayling, rainbow, and cutthroat trout to whirling disease by natural exposure to Myxobolus cerebralis. Whirling Disease Symposium, Logan, UT.

Murcia, S., B.L. Kerans, E. MacConnell, and T.M. Koel. 2006. Myxobolus cerebralis infection patterns in Yellowstone cutthroat trout after natural exposure. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 71(3):191–199.

Last updated: June 16, 2017

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